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Brythonic Cavalry and implications for Arthuis as 'High King' of the North.
Expanding on the tropes article and my latest twitter thread.
A Small Kingdom, With a Powerful King
In my last Subtack article I discussed the possibilities of an enduring culture of horse-based warfare that the Sub-Roman Brythonic kingdoms likely inherited from Rome.
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This cavalry based approach allowed the Brythonic kings (while they still held fairly strong centralized power) to project power to defend their borders, and beyond. Within the recent article I mention references to Cunedda's cavalry from the Elegy "Marwnad Cunedda" From the "Death-Song of Cunedda" we learn that he commanded a host of 900 horsemen, a significant force for the period. This, one could assume, would be one of the reasons he was able to contend with Coel Hen, "King of Northern Britain".
Coel ruled the largest Kingdom in Britain at the time, and was likely quite wealthy as well.1 His kingdom was roughly the same territory that the Dux Britanniarum was responsible for, and likely had the largest military influence in the North if not on the entire island, yet Cunedda is still known as a thorn in Coel's side. Cunedda and Coel eventually reconciled with a marriage between Coel's daughter and Cunedda. Cunedda and his sons (or generals) eventually migrate to Wales and establish the kingdom of Gwynedd, by expelling the Irish from the region who had gained a strong foothold. Doubtlessly his 900 horsemen would have been key to these victories.
Considering Cunedda's large cavalry force, and the size of his original territory, What force might Arthuis ap Mar, The Northern Arthur, have been able to bring to bear?
The King of the North
I have discussed this before, but I will rehash it again here for the benefit of the reader. I believe we have evidence of Arthuis ap Mar as a potential ‘High King’ of Northern Britain, ruling from the Antonine wall to the Midlands.
Arthuis' son Ellifer inherited Ebrauc in it's entirety at the beginning of his reign2, it doesn't seem to have been split as earlier generations had done. Instead Arthuis' sons Ceidio and Cynfelyn established their kingdoms north of their father's territory. Ceidio's territory centered on Carwinley, and Cynfelyn's on Roxburgh, establishing the kingdoms of Caer Wenddoleu and Calchfynydd respectively. How did these two princes of Ebrauc carve out kingdoms from two competing kingdoms, Alt Clut, Bryneich, and Gododdin? Much the same way as the generations prior to them, their father split territory that was under his control. If Nennius' twelve battles of Arthur are actually Arthuis' (as I have discussed in these articles) then that gives a pretty cut and dry explanation as to how his sons ended up with territory within kingdoms that were by no means weak. The territory taken by Ceidio and Cynfelyn is mainly in kingdoms that Arthuis had border battles with during his campaigns. After these campaigns Arthuis was functionally the preeminent king of Northern Britain, and held enough power as an overking to to install his sons in fortresses within, Bryniech, Alt Clut, and the Gododdin’s territory.3
These kingdoms were probably part of peacekeeping arrangements, with Ceidio and Cynfelyn holding Alt Clut and The Gododdin in check with their own fortresses and their own retinues. These kingdoms once again give more solid evidence to the idea of Arthuis as a High King of The Old North during his time, also strengthening the possibility that he was the beginning of the later composite Arthur as well.
Alistair Moffat, in his book "Arthur and the Lost Kingdoms" entertains the idea that Arthur was a powerful Cavalry warlord operating out of a horse-centric Fortress in what is today Roxburgh. I would say this is only partially on the mark, as it is likely that it was not Arthur but Arthuis’ son Cynfelyn operating from Calchfynydd, placed there to keep the ever-defiant Gododdin in check. If Cynfelyn is this horse-lord that Moffat surmises is Arthur, he would have had significant power himself. From his seat at Marchidun (Roxburgh) in Calchfynydd hwe would have been able to support around 300 armed and armoured horsemen, with their accompanying costs and grooms. Farther from Cunedda's 900 but still a significant retinue. Cynfelyn is likely the subject of Aneirin’s work Gwrchan Cynfelyn
Fury against the Angles is just; It is right to kill; it is right to crush those who are crushing… Again there will be blood around him Before the battles of Cynvelyn,-- From the discontent of Cynvelyn, The looming pillar of wrath, Feeder of the crows.
His brother Ceidio reigning between Alt Clut and Rheged would have been capable of sustaining a similar number to Cynfelyn. Ceidio's son Gwenddoleu is called in one source "a very powerful prince" indicating that though his kingdom was fairly small it was likely rich, and capable of fielding a large army. Arthuis' brothers no doubt would have had similar, if not larger retinues including Llenneac, King of Elmet, Morydd, and Einion (both who we do not know of any direct territory, though they likely had fortresses and retinues as well.)4, as well as his uncle Pabo, King of the Pennines, cousins Meirchion, King of Rheged, and Bran and Cyngar, Kings of Bryneich, coming to a possible mustered force of 2000-3000 horsemen. To our modern conceptions that may seem like a small number, but for this period when entire wars for kingdoms could be decided with as few as 500 (or less) men, 3000 cavalry would be a serious force to contend with. Ellifer, Arthuis' eldest son inherited Ebrauc, and was known by the epithet Gosgorddfawr, or "Of the Great Army" a memory of the large force he was able to bring, possibly even the core infantry spearman of his father's later military. It very well may have been possible for Arthuis' to muster over 5000 troops, with the help of his sub-kings.
One thing to note on my map, is that while you will see Deira present, I have consciously left out Bernicia. This is not because Bernicia didn’t ‘exist’ during Arthuis' reign, but because Anglian Bernicia was little more than sparse Anglian settlement on Bryneich’s coast at the time. Ida had yet to establish himself as Bernicia’s first king, and only did so in 547, ten years after Arthuis’ death at Camlann. As I have discussed before, Arthuis' high kingship seems to have waned in his old age, with Gododdin and Alt Clut once again becoming enemies of the Coelings, this time in a desperate cattle raid spurred on by the extreme weather events of 536. It would seem that it still had lasting power, if only between the kingdoms who shared descent from Coel. Ida seeing the failing power of the Brythonic kingdoms would make his move, and establish himself as King of Bernicia. Penetrating deep into Brythonic territory however must still have been a difficult prospect for the Anglians, who seemed to be relatively few in number.5
Arthuis’ doom at Camlann begins the ill fate of these horselords of the north. 6There would be a glimmer of hope again, forty years later, when Urien, who would have been a young boy when Camlann happened, would lead kings into battle like his cousin Arthuis did two generations before. This glimmer was not to last, as when the Angles were cornered, Urien was assassinated7. The last charge of the cavalry of the north was to be the Battle of Catraeth, when 300 horsemen of the Gododdin rode to their doom, ending the Brythonic Heroic Age.
Armour and shield could not save them.
This Enormous kingdom would be split multiple times amongst Coel’s descendants, known in honor of him as Coelings. From Coel’s Kingdom of Northern Britain, Bryneich would split off first, going to Coel’s son Garbanian, with Ceneu inheriting the rest, Ceneu’s kingdom would then be split between his three sons, Mar, who became king of Ebrauc, Gwrwst, who became king of Rheged, and Pabo, who became king of the Pennines (we have lost it’s original name)
Ellifer may even be remembered as ruling in his father’s stead, as seen in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s time-misplaced story of Archgallo.
This could be extended to include the Picts themselves, North of the Antonine wall, if Lambert of Saint-Omer's work Liber Floridus and it’s addition to Nennius’ account calling Arthur “the leader of the Picts”
If Morydd is the Medraut remembered in the Annals as falling with Arthur at Camlann, Camboglana on the wall very well could be speculated as being his seat.
This is speculation for another article, although I will briefly summarize. The Angles of Bernicia seemed to have been especially sparse compared to other places of Germanic settlement. While the idea of ‘Elite Replacement’ has fallen out of favor, I would hold that in Bernicia this was likely the case. There is a bit of anecdotal evidence that they adopted Cavalry fairly early much like the Brythonic peoples that preceded them. This may have been a result of a merging of cultures between the two. Perhaps the people of Bryneich were tired of the ambitious and ill-remembered Morcant, and accepted Ida willingly?
You can read about the cataclysm that is probably the direct cause of Camlann in this article : The Arthurian Wasteland
Or died in the siege of Lindisfarne, but that’s speculation for another article.